ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

CBR11 Archive

Thursday

11

July 2019

0

COMMENTS

The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology by Mark Boyle

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Four Stars

Best for:
People interested in what it looks like to truly, deeply, live one’s values.

In a nutshell:
Mark Boyle once lived without money for three years. Now he’s gone further – he’s given up everything we would consider to be modern technology. (But how is there a book, you ask? We’ll get there.)

Worth quoting:
‘What are we prepared to lose, and what do we want to gain, as we fumble our way through our short, precious lives.’

Why I chose it:
For the past couple of years I’m been very interested in life that is closer to nature, especially as it relates to environmental impact. Plus, this is a hefty and gorgeous book.

Review:
Spoilers for the TV Show The Good Place throughout.

For my CBR review post I chose a Chidi quote from The Good Place: ‘Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.’ In fact, throughout my read of this book I kept thinking of that show; specifically the twists in the third season, where we discover that no one has gotten into the Good Place for 500 years because it’s just too damn hard to make the right decisions.

I think even having strong, well-thought-out principles is rare. Religion may give it to some people, but even then, what does it really mean to, for example, love your neighbor as yourself? Or do no harm? How far are you willing — and able — to go in living your values? I’ve seen the phrase ‘there’s no ethical consumption in capitalism’ shared on social media often. I mean, I’m typing this on a computer that is slowly dying; if I want to buy another one, what company do I support? The one that gives no money to charity and built a giant new headquarters without considering including childcare facilities (Apple), or the one that supplies computers to the US agency currently keeping immigrant children in cages (Dell)?

Not great choices, eh? If we want to truly live a low-harm life, can we life the lives so many of us in industrialized nations are living? And if not, what does our life look like?

Author Mark Boyle wants to live by his principles, at least, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t elaborate on what those principles are in a list or any specific way, but he seems to generally want to live what he considers a real life – one that is closer to nature and a way to experience true connection to the earth. Which is amazing, but I think it is narrow-minded to suggest that this is the true way to live a good life. I don’t get the sense from Boyle that he believes everyone must live as he lives, but I do get the sense that he believes he is more connected to the idea of what it means to be human than, say, someone using a computer. I find that mildly amusing.

There are many eye-roll moments, but honestly not as many as there could be. And the storytelling itself is interesting. Boyle breaks down his first year of no tech (hand-tools only, no car, no electricity, no running water, no screens) by season, sharing the work he has to do to keep his sharehold land and cabin functioning. He grows his own food, catches his own meat (which he does grapple with as a former vegan). He doesn’t make his own clothes yet, and he does things like hitchhike if he needs to travel far. He doesn’t use a phone, which means he’s only reachable by letters.

And I think that’s where I do get a little annoyed with Boyle. Not because he’s choosing to live this life, but because he’s pushed it onto others secondarily. And that’s totally fine — other people aren’t required to approve of or participate in how I live my life — but when the only way a parent can reach their child with serious news is via letter, I think that’s kind of uncool. Yes, I realize that this is how it used to be before any phones were available, but it’s not how it has to be now.

I don’t agree that living without technology necessarily makes one closer to understanding what it means to be human, and I don’t think living with technology means one is necessarily disconnected. There are extremes in both ways of viewing the world. I don’t believe that camping is objectively better or worse than sleeping in a bed. But at the same time, I do understand that while the ends might be fine (being able to talk to my parents who are currently 6,000 miles away), the means can be problematic (how did the materials needed to make my phone get there). I mean, I gave up eating meat because I couldn’t come up with a way, given my currently life circumstances, to rationalize it, but I do see why Boyle does choose meet.

There’s a lot to think about with this book. How can we be closer to who we want to be? What does it mean to live this life? Are we living it deeply? And, obviously, who gets the luxury right now of moving to a bit of land in rural Ireland and living completely off the grid? We didn’t all spring forth with endless options around us when born – we may have intergenerational debt or trauma or cultural expectations or family relationships that can’t just be ignored or even processed by vowing to give up email.

I’ll be thinking about this book for awhile.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Sunday

23

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy coming of age stories that are (or try to be?) a bit edgier.

In a nutshell:
Marianne and Connell are classmates in a small town in London. His mother cleans her house. They do not run in the same social circles. Things transpire, and they grow up.

Worth quoting:
“Committee members of college clubs, who are dressed up in black tie very frequently, and who inexplicably believe the internal workings of student societies are interesting to normal people.”
“In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and I in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality. It depressed her to think people were so predictable.”

Why I chose it:
It’s being promoted in all the bookshops. The bookseller at the shop close to my work (where I tend to wander on lunch breaks at least once a month) claimed it was even better than her last book. I disagree.

Review:
Connell and Marianne are from different walks of life – his mom is a single mother who, among other things, cleans the mansion of Marianne’s family. Marianne’s father is dead, her brother is cruel, and her mother is uninvolved (and also possibly cruel? Unclear). They are both smart, and they become friends via hooking up. Then they part ways but reconnect in college. Each chapter is a skip in time (sometimes three weeks, sometimes three months, sometimes five minutes) and usually — maybe always? I don’t have the book anymore — alternates between the two characters. The bookseller described it as a ‘will they / won’t they,’ but it’s really a ‘they did, and probably will again, and is that a good thing?’

I get what the author was going for here, but I don’t think it worked for me. I’m not sure how one can successfully do coming of age across five or six years (instead of, say, over the course of one year of high school or college), but I don’t think this is it. By the end of the book I still saw the characters as teenagers playing at being adult, even though they did have very real issues and concerns. And even though the entirety of the book focuses on these two individuals, I don’t get a sense of who they are, really. Connell is meant to be deeply written, but I don’t leave feeling I know much about him. Marianne I felt gets a bit more development, but the way her story is handled seems almost salacious for the sake of being salacious. Which, I guess makes sense? I mean, I don’t know how else the author could have written those components, but they still didn’t work for me. Overall I’m disappointed.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (to the vacation rental home I was in when I finished it)

Monday

10

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

How to Be a Footballer by Peter Crouch

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who enjoying playing or watching football, especially the men’s game, especially the English Premier League.

In a nutshell:
Professional football (soccer) player Peter Crouch offers a glimpse into the lives of professional players, including what goes on in the changing rooms, what it’s like to be traded (sold) to another team, and why so many seem to buy such … interesting cars.

Worth quoting:
“You should probably be able to absorb the pain of an opposition goal without needing to wave two finders in the scorer’s face…We all like goals. And if it’s a goal you personally do not like, you can be certain that someone with the same primary leisure interest as you will be absolutely loving it.”

Why I chose it:
I like a good football (soccer) biography, and this one had the potential to be especially entertaining.

Review:
What a lovely surprise this book was! I love football (or, as I grew up calling it, soccer). I’ve played since I was a kid, and last year joined a women’s league here in London, so I train every Tuesday (and one Friday a month), and play in matches on Sundays (and some Saturdays) from September through April. It’s a lovely camaraderie as well as a way to stay fit and keep my brain going as I try to improve. I’m also going to the Women’s World Cup (tomorrow!), where I’ll watch the US Women’s National Team play each of their group stage matches, and then return for the semi-finals and finals.

I have read and reviewed a couple autobiographies from players for the US Women’s National Team, but they were fairly straightforward sports bios, whereas this one is more a collection of humorous observational essays. And, because I didn’t grow up watching the England men’s premier league (or much men’s international football at all), there are a lot of references that I don’t get. However, that didn’t take a way from the book. Sure, there are a lot of players and moments (say, an amazing goal) that are mentioned, but there is enough context within each chapter to get the general gist.

Crouch played for a few teams in the English men’s premier league, as well as for England’s men’s national team. You might recognize him as the extraordinarily tall, very lean, striker. Seriously, the guy is 6’7”. Damn. He currently plays for Burnley, and has played for Aston Villa, QPR and Liverpool in the past. But this book isn’t so much about that. I mean, it is – he talks about his experiences working under different managers, and traveling with different teams. But each chapter is about a different aspect of a footballer’s life, and it doesn’t follow any traditional trajectory. Any given chapter might refer to his time in the youth league, or at a World Cup. He doesn’t talk much about his wife or kids — this is a book about football.

And it’s funny! I don’t know how better to put it than that. Yes, I think you need to have a passing interest in the sport, but Crouch is a genuinely endearing, funny guy who can make an already entertaining story even better. He’s just the right amount of self-deprecating, and he’s also willing to point out when he thinks something is just silly.

I mean, come on:

The only bummer for me is that at no point are any of his examples of amazing plays or players women. Yes, obviously he’s played only with men, and only in men’s leagues. But he doesn’t limit his anecdotes to just things he’s directly experienced or people he has played with; he references loads of players and moments that took place before he was playing. Is there really no goal a professional woman footballer has scored that is worth a mention? Not Carli Lloyd’s hat trick at the World Cup Final in 2015? Not Abby Wambach’s headers? It’s just disappointing.

Still, I recommend this book if you like football and you like to laugh.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a friend

Sunday

2

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone whose life doesn’t fit the script. And anyone whose does, but insists that other’s lives fit as well.

In a nutshell:
Keiko is 36, single, and has been working in the same convenience store since she was 18. Family and friends want her to get another job, find a husband, and maybe have a child.

Worth quoting:
“When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck.”
“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”
“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know.”

Why I chose it:
It’s been on display everywhere I go lately, so I finally picked it up. Glad I did!

Review:
Keiko doesn’t fit into what society expects of women. She works part-time in a job that others look down upon, she doesn’t date, and she doesn’t have many friends or interests outside of work. She makes people uncomfortable because she doesn’t have the same life goals as others – she has no interest in sex, she doesn’t want another job. She studies others so she can fit in better, but overall she’d just be happy if people let her be. But of course, people don’t, including a misogynistic jackass who starts – and quickly leaves – work at the same convenience store.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot into it. Author Murata uses an interesting and different character – one who it might be hard to initially relate to – to make a bigger point about life and what we expect from it for not just ourselves, but others. I get a taste of it at times because I am not having children; some people with children often seem to not entirely know what to do with me once they realize that I’m not going to change my mind. And on a more serious level, I see this playing out in my home town of Seattle, where people who aren’t fulfilling what others view as their duty (namely, to somehow miraculously figure out how to find a home with money they don’t have) are viewed as a drain on society. There’s a life script, and people who follow it (usually people who, I would argue, are unhappy they had to follow it) can be utterly cruel to those who either can’t, won’t, or don’t want to.

Obviously this is complicated by the fact that the thing that seems to make Keiko happy is working in what so many people think of as a soul-crushing job. I saw one review that considered this a horror book. And perhaps part of it is. Or perhaps the author picked something that it would be hard for so many of us to see as a positive to challenge us further. Either way, I’m into it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Monday

27

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshefegh

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for:
People looking for a well-written, fairly quick read of no consequence, whose characters are all unappealing, especially the protagonist.

In a nutshell:
Orphaned rich woman (no name given, which I didn’t realize until I went to write this review) decides the way she wants to deal with her life is by sleeping. So she find a doctor who is willing to prescribe her all manner of sleeping pills.

Worth quoting:
‘It’s not about the men,’ she said. ‘Women are so judgmental. They’re always comparing.’
‘But why do you care? It’s not a contest.’
‘Yes, it is. You just can’t see it because you’ve always been the winner.’

Why I chose it:
I have picked this book up in shops probably a half-dozen times. Now that it’s in paperback I finally decided to get it. I’m glad, if only because my curiosity is well-sated.

Review:
This was a quick read, for sure. But I did not enjoy it. When I finished it, I wondered what I’d missed. Was this satire – a mocking of all those sort-of coming-of-age books written by white men about young white men? No? It’s just a character study? Huh.

Author Moshfegh is talented, for sure. The book is easy to read, the scenes evocative and well-thought-out. I have a strong picture in my mind of every place described, and a real feeling about each place. But the overall idea of the book, the main concept, the plot, just didn’t work for me at all. As it moved along I sort of got a bit of why the protagonist was doing what she was doing. I think?

Was she depressed? Probably. But was that what was fueling her desire to sleep? Or was she just ill-equipped for the world? Honestly? I didn’t care. Was I supposed to care? Unclear. Like I said, I might have missed something, but maybe not. Maybe it just wasn’t my thing. Entertainment Weekly said “One of the most compelling protagonists modern fiction has offered in years” and just … no. I disagree.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Toss it

Saturday

25

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

Skylight by José Saramago

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of books that look at many different characters(as opposed to just one or two protagonists).

In a nutshell:
In late-1940s Lisbon, six apartments contain a variety of tenants searching for something more in their lives — or searching for ways to keep their lives the same.

Worth quoting:
“She knew men too well to love any of them.”
“I have never lied so much in my life and I hadn’t realised how many people are prepared to believe lies.”
“His brain attached itself to all kinds of things, went over and over the same problems, plunged into them, drowned in them, so that, in the end, his own thoughts became the problem.”

Why I chose it:
My favorite book is Blindness, which José Saramago published in 1995. A friend bought it for me (having never read it himself) and it turned into the book I gave friends if I stayed with them. Maybe an odd choice, but whatever. I think it’s a fantastic book. I read the sequel and wasn’t as into it, but still, Saramago can write. Last year we went to Lisbon for our anniversary and visited Casa dos Bicos, which is home to the Saramago foundation. I saw his Nobel Prize for literature. It was amazing. They also had a bookshop, and this book stood out to me because it was one of his first books but was only published after his death.

Review:
CN: Brief discussion of marital assault

Early in his career, Saramago sent the manuscript for Skylight to a publisher. Early, as in, he sent it in 1953. The publisher didn’t get back to him. In 1989, someone at the publishing house found it and asked if they could publish it. Saramago said no. In fact, he said it couldn’t be published until after his death.

Although this book is set in the 1940s, it could be set in the 2010s. Obviously there are no mobile phones, and people listen to the radio or play games in the evening, but nothing about the stories feels dated or old fashioned, which is, to me, a pretty amazing sign of Saramago’s ability to write people, regardless of time or space.

That’s not to say that time and space don’t play into this. Some of the people in this book are a bit of a throwback (in my mind at least), such as the man who has a wife and daughter and prides himself on being the head of the household in a way that I consider pathetic. There is the mother, her sister, and two daughters all living together because the family has come on hard times.

The neighbors are connected in some ways, and disconnected in others. One couple takes in a lodger who stays up late discussing life with the husband. Another is a woman living alone in an apartment kept by the man who employs her as a mistress; he also employs another tenant as an office worker, which creates some drama. There is the couple whose daughter died and who cannot stand each other the the point that he sexually assaults her (in fairly brief scene that challenges the reader). There is the woman who is attracted to other women but doesn’t know what to do with those feelings.

And the women don’t exist just to further along the plots of the men. We get to hear from them, get their points of view, experience their lives. As part of the time, many of those lives are intertwined with or dependent on men, but they clearly have their own goals and dreams and perspectives. The writing of them isn’t perfect, but it’s mostly well done.

I was a bit worried to pick this one up because I love Blindness so much. What if it was a fluke? What if Saramago’s writing only spoke to me the one time? Especially as I didn’t entirely enjoy the follow-up? But not to worry – this was nearly as good as Blindness for me. Radically different in plot, but still an interesting exploration of human life.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Monday

6

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

 

Best for:
People looking for hard facts on how the lack of data collected about women harms us.

In a nutshell:
Much of ruling society treats (cis) men as the default, dismissing the needs of women as abnormal. This screws us over.

Worth quoting:
“Like so many of the decisions to exclude women in the interests of simplicity, from architecture to medical research, this conclusion could only be reached in a culture that conceives of men as the default human and women as a niche aberration.”

Why I chose it:
I wanted some hard facts to support something I was already generally aware of.

Review:
I really struggled with picking up this book. Normally I wouldn’t because the topics is right up my alley. It’s non-fiction. It’s written by a woman. It talks about sexism. It focuses on statistics and data. That’s my jam! Except the author is a problematic feminist and I hate that she is the one who wrote this book, because she has a real problem with the idea of cis women (she wants to be called woman by default, not a cis woman, necessarily othering trans women. Oh the irony). Which means this book never once gives even a sidebar mention of the fact that some of the data gaps she is focused on are even worse for trans women. She also quotes a transphobic woman (Sarah Ditum) in the first few pages. I wish she were a better on this, but here we are.

The fact is, she has written an interesting and easy-to-read book that should piss everyone off. From data gaps about unpaid care work and women’s contributions to the economy to the fact that women metabolize and react to medications differently than men (but are often barely represented in studies — if they are included at all), she looks at the literally hundreds of ways that society places the needs of men in general above the needs of women in general, and the impact it has on how we navigate the world.

Obviously this requires some generalizations. For example, many of the areas focus on women’s role as caretaker, specifically as a mother. I’m not a mother and never will be, so I don’t fit in that realm. But I recognize that overwhelmingly most women will at some point have a child, so I appreciate that not taking that into account will harm many, many women.

Some were areas I’d been aware of before, though not in this level of detail. But other things were light-bulb moments. Early on in the book she talks about the planning of public space and public transportation, and some of the revelations were, looking back, obvious, but also so insidious as to not have occurred to me before.

The focus on the average man’s life experience as the default informs so many decisions in our world, and that means women get left out, left behind, and actively harmed. And the solution is to collect — and the use — more data, but there’s a problem there, as the gatekeepers for things like funding scientific studies are overwhelmingly dudes, and they don’t see the need for studying women-specific issues, or even disaggregating data by sex or gender.

There aren’t easy solutions that corporations and governments are just going to accept and implement. My biggest take-away from this is to be alert to any new studies I read that generalize about people, and to be an outspoken advocate to ensure that new initiatives at the government level have taken into account the lives not just of men, but of women, as well as people in other demographic groups.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it.

Sunday

28

April 2019

0

COMMENTS

Midlife by Kieran Setiya

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those who enjoy a philosophical approach to things, and those who are approaching middle age.

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Kieran Setiya, as he approached mid-life, decided to explore ways philosophy might help him power through — or even stave off — a crisis.

Worth quoting:
“I recognize the luxury of the midlife crisis, with a degree of guilt and shame. Why can’t I be more grateful for what I have? But this is my life.”
“There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life.”
“There is no more to going for a walk than what you are doing right now. You are not on the way to achieving a goal. You are already there.”

Why I chose it:
I’m turning 40 next year and I enjoy studying philosophy.

Review:
This fairly short exploration of mid-life is lightly humorous and well-written. Author Setiya is approaching 40 and has started to feel what many do when they approach mid-life: a sense of malaise. As he is a philosophy professor, he is, one could argue, fairly well-suited to explore the larger questions around life and what it means as we continue into the second half of our lives.

And I think he is. This is a largely successful book if one is looking not so much for all the answers, but for some ideas of how to change one’s thinking about this time in life. Setiya looks at the big issues that crop up around middle age: regret / paths not taken; fear of death; and wondering what to do next when you’ve completed most of the standard life projects.

The section on regret is interesting, as it forces a rational approach to the issue. Namely, that even if you could start over and do things completely differently, that would mean wiping out who you are now. Do you really want that? Do any of us? Sure, it’s understandable to spend some time wondering about different choices, but you can’t do anything about it. I found this section … not that helpful for me. I don’t have large life regrets or anything like that (though I’ve gone back-and-forth on career choices basically since leaving university) but I don’t think I followed Setiya’s process here.

The fear of mortality section was also a bit of a challenge for me, as his main point seemed to be (if I’m understanding it) that we shouldn’t focus on not being around after death because we weren’t around before birth, and they’re ultimately the same thing. There’s also something here about putting more emphasis on the future than the past, but I had some trouble following it.

The section I found most helpful was the one dealing with the challenges of what happens when you’ve met most of the life goals society sets out for us. For me, that included going to university, meeting a life partner, and buying a home, all of which I’ve done. What happens after that? What about all the other projects we work on, that are also bound to finish (like, hopefully, my book)? What do we do then? Setiya’s suggestion is we focus on all the things that are not bound by a start an end, instead looking at the process. His example is enjoying a walk for the walk’s sake. Not because we are using it as a means to an end. That is a way of thinking that I could definitely incorporate into my daily life.

Overall, would I recommend it to my peers? Eh, probably not, but mostly because I think it’s a little heavier on the philosophy than they’d like.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Friday

26

April 2019

0

COMMENTS

No. More. Plastic. by Martin Dorey

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for concrete steps to take to reduce plastic consumption individually and at the societal level.

In a nutshell:
The man who founded the two-minute beach clean-up offers tips for plastic use reduction.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
I saw this in a shop while on a vacation near the sea, so it seemed like an appropriate (and quick) read.

Review:
Just over a week ago the Extinction Rebellion actions stepped up in London. The bridge by my office was occupied for a week; trains were affected, streets were blocked, and peaceful protesters engaged in civil disobedience to try to get politicians to pay attention to the serious issue of climate change and human impact on the environment. That was near the top of my mind when I came across this book. I’m doing a fairly good job with my carbon footprint; I don’t eat meat, I’m not having children. I no longer own a car, and when I did, both my partner and I still walked to work or took the bus. We do, however, live 6,000 miles from where we grew up, which means we do take long-haul flights once or twice a year.

And we also use plastic. It’s ubiquitous plastic is, especially here in the UK. The thing that baffles me the most is that nearly every bit of fresh fruit or vegetable is wrapped in plastic. Cucumbers are shrink-wrapped. Zucchini are wrapped three to a pack. Heads of lettuce aren’t that common; bags of lettuce, however, are everywhere. Broccoli crowns are shrink-wrapped. Avocado are in plastic trays. It’s BANANAS. I agree with the author here when he says it is gobsmackingly ridiculous that it is legal to sell food in packaging that cannot be recycled.

This book offers a bunch of ideas (some extremely practical, some not so much) and steps to take to reduce plastic consumption. Some I’ve done recently – buying a glass reusable water bottle and reusable coffee cup for my commute – but others are things I need to do. Each of the 30 tips are discussed in detail across one or two pages, but there is a checklist at the back so readers can keep track of their progress.

The reason this book only has three stars is it seems written in a vacuum that doesn’t acknowledge the impact of some of these suggested changes on people. For example, this guy is gung-ho on eliminating plastic straws. Now, this isn’t a thick book, nor does it contain much of a narrative. But it’s well-documented that flexible plastic straws are a necessity for some disabled people. Same for wipes, which are other things Dorey says we need to give up (or at least not flush). It would be good for society to find alternatives for people who need them, and educate people who DON’T need them to STOP USING THEM. But othering disabled people by making the request them separately or incur the added cost of buying them isn’t a solution I’m okay with.

Another suggestion is to avoid supermarkets and go to direct sources that use less packaging, like greengrocers, butchers, bakers, etc. Great idea. But if those are spread out across town, that’s a large time-suck for some people who may not have the time to give. And what about the added carbon of driving to multiple locations?

And then there’s this: “Shop as usual but leave all the packaging at the till and let the supermarket know why you’re doing it.” I’m sorry, what? You want the staff person who is likely not paid a great wage to have to clean up the mess you make with your purchases? No. Don’t do that. Talk to the manager. Get lots of people together to talk to the manager. Buy things that are not packaged and don’t buy things packaged in plastic. But don’t put it on the lowest paid staff member to deal with your actions.

It’s complicated, and makes me think about the end of Season 3 of The Good Place – things are complicated, and it can be hard to make the best, most ethical decision. And sometimes an individual doing something means very little if there isn’t a larger plan of action associated with it.

But sometimes it isn’t that complicated; sometimes you really can pay more attention and make better choices. I think, on the whole, the book is one way to help me do that.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Wednesday

24

April 2019

0

COMMENTS

The Life of Stuff by Susannah Walker

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who find meaning in true stories, quality narratives, and learning about the human condition.

In a nutshell:
Author Susannah Walker’s mother was not always there for her. Upon Patricia’s death, Susannah sees that she’s been hoarding, allowing her home to fall into disrepair, and takes it as a chance to try to get to know her mother’s story.

Worth quoting:
“There had to be thousands of daughters like me who didn’t have a proper relationship with their mothers, but we would never be able to speak up and find each other, because the world was our policeman, always judging us.”
“So much of what my mother accumulated — all those plastic bags and envelopes of junk mail — didn’t have any significance of their own. Their job was to bury the objects that did, to prevent the terrifying misery of the past from ever being discovered again.”

Why I chose it:
I was in a bookshop in a new city. Obviously I was going to get something. I’d also been looking for a book with a more narrative voice but didn’t have any fiction in mind. This was a perfect fit.

Review:
Author Susannah Walker studied and worked at one of the most interesting (in my opinion) museums in the world – the V & A in London. She’s fully aware of how we as a society choose to collect items as a way to better understand — or at least keep alive — our histories. So it makes sense that she would approach her mother’s death and hoarding in the way she did: through her mother’s things.

Each chapter begins with an illustration of an object from her mother’s home, and includes some text that you would expect to see next to an item in the museum. That object then frames the discussion of the chapter. We start with Patricia falling in her home and being taken to the hospital, then Walker receiving a shaming phone call from a police officer. Her mother seemed to be improving enough to leave the hospital but couldn’t return to her home which was, in addition to being filled with items, in disrepair, with a broken and open back door, no running water or functioning toilet, and mildew and dampness everywhere. As Walker worked to convince hospital staff that a nursing home would be the best next step, Patricia died, leaving Susannah to sort through what remained.

Patricia and Walker’s father divorced with Walker was young, and she and her brother went to live with their father, only seeing their mother occasionally. They weren’t fully estranged though; Walker still spoke to Patricia regularly, and met up with her for lunch. But they were not close, as Walker always felt unloved. How could a mother sort of abandon her child? And how could a grown child not see that her mother was in such a condition that lead to this hoarding?

Walker takes the opportunity to explore her mother’s life as she sifts through her belongings, and it’s ultimately a sad life, full of loss. As Walker peels back the layers in the house, she also peels back a bit more about her mother’s life, learning more about events in the distant past. Walker lost a sibling on the day she was born; her mother also lost a sibling. Divorce spans generations of the family, and loss seems to be everywhere.

Some of the best parts of the book were Walker’s research into hoarding and how society chooses to classify and exploit the stories of hoarders. She points out that so much focus is on the brain chemistry of hoarders and not nearly enough on what really precipitates their actions: namely, often, a profound sense of loss.

Walker is an engaging writer and storyteller; I was on holiday and read the book over the course of just three days. I didn’t want to put it down. Not because there was anything especially urgent, but because I cared about Walker and her mother and all the people who have experienced loss and found themselves acting the way Patricia did. And I felt for everyone who has complicated relationships with their parents, especially when that parent has died, leaving the relationship unresolved. I’m not keeping it only because I don’t imagine I’ll want to reread it, but I will donate it so someone else can experience it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it